Tuesday 28 May 2024

Rust in the dust: "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga"

George Miller drove deep into the Namibian desert to film 2015's 
Mad Max: Fury Road, in part - as the director later admitted - to swerve the executives and their pettyfogging notes. By contrast, the new Fury Road prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, parks up among us trailing whiffs of diesel and dull corporate logic, two of its directives being to reclaim the IP and expand the universe. Fury Road's quiet genius (if anything about that headbanger could reasonably be labelled quiet) was that it was an action movie conceived along clear, straight lines - the characters haring from A to B, before pulling a mid-film u-ey to race one another back again - which allowed it to achieve the velocity it did. By contrast, Furiosa spends its two-and-a-half hours casting around. Five highfalutin chapter headings bear witness to the evolution of our wronged heroine (played by Alyla Browne as a child, then Anya Taylor-Joy) into the character Charlize Theron played so fiercely in the earlier movie; plucked from an Edenic paradise in an apple-picking prologue, Furiosa thereafter bounces like a pinball between the sites of earlier Mad Max films, pursued at most points by the demagogue Dementus, played by Chris Hemsworth with a prosthetic proboscis and a motorbike-driven chariot. Yet from the word go, we are once more struck by the precision with which Miller loads and fills his frames. A seeker's binoculars leave behind perfect hemispheres on the crest of a dune. A cut back to the vantage point where a sniper has shot two men dead from distance reveals a gleaming pair of spent rifle cartridges in the sand. Everything here has been engineered to square up, with the exception of the topsy-turvy angle one of the assassin's victims is left at: head buried in silica, boots sticking in the air, exactly how a corpse might be drawn in a comic strip for greatest visual effect. If this is Hollywood business as usual, it's uncommonly nifty, attentive business. Miller, now 79 and as energised as ever, may be the Platonic ideal of a summer blockbuster director: a vulgarian with supreme technical smarts. Few creatives have been as keen to get a movie's engine running, and then been as enthusiastic about generating deranged spectacle for us to gawp at in passing.

The original Mad Maxes - cheap, grubby, exploitation-adjacent - marked a break from what had become the action movie norm in the wake of the wipeclean, family-friendly Star Wars. Fury Road, when it came along, marked a break from the blockbuster norm in the early MCU era: its single, continuous movement went against the profitable box-office trend of a setpiece every twenty minutes, separated by lumpen exposition. Furiosa sometimes feels structurally closer to the Marvel model than it does to Fury Road; it's not reinventing the wheel so much as giving it a more forceful kick, and there are what (in a Mad Max context) feel like pauses for breath and water. But it's not the speed that astounds us here, rather the density of stirring, evocative, perfectly placed detail, and how much of it survives even into frames where Furiosa is attempting to throw her pursuers off. My best guess? Whatever Miller and his cohorts put onto the storyboards at 3am, in some flurry of nocturnal inspiration, has made it onto the screen unopposed. (The suits were among those thrown off - again.) Some of it is literal worldbuilding, as when Furiosa, having hacked off her locks to pass as a boy, is appointed a foreman charged with the construction of Immortan Joe's lair. Yet it's worldbuilding with an elevating flexibility - multiple parts set in giddying motion, very different from the construction-set dourness of Villeneuve's Dunes - which reflects that of the series' prime mover, who went from Mad Max to Babe and Happy Feet and came right back again. Miller, too, has pivoted, for where those first Mad Maxes delighted in the ultra-20th century sight of a lone male hero, Fury Road and Furiosa are far more attuned to the horrors of patriarchy: the unchecked ego (Dementus, a Trump of the desert), the violent need for dominance and control (Joe and his pallid Warboys), the women locked up in a vault to be impregnated, milked and worse. For all that, Furiosa is never pious in its positioning, and often too off-colour to pass for conventionally woke; Miller has a residual fondness for the grizzled, sun-baked or just plain bald character actors who do his villainous bidding, fellas too wormy, scuzzy or otherwise terrifying to have passed the Home & Away audition.

This filmmaker is so palpably caught up in both the macro and micro of this world that there were points where I found myself questioning what the lunatics on screen were doing and why they might be doing it. During the extended running highway battle that introduces Tom Burke as a kind of Max Rockatansky tribute act, I began to sense some element of mission drift, the dangers of a wholly unchecked vision. Here, the motivation gets blurry (where are we going? why is everybody on this guy's case?) and the exhilaration prompted by such high-calibre imagemaking is tempered by a vague sense of exhaustion. (Too much of one kind of information, not enough of the other: Furiosa is mindboggling, but having your mind so relentlessly boggled can also be fatiguing.) Yet those images prove the solution to almost every last one of Furiosa's storytelling problems: their clarity and legibility amply demonstrates the benefits of shooting your summer movie outdoors, rather than on a soundstage, and they interlock in ways the images in big studio movies rarely do nowadays. Keep a close, sustained eye on it, and the film begins to resemble a colossal machine, showing us its inner workings while carrying everybody to a desired destination - the inevitable rewatch of Fury Road - at speeds of up to 150mph. If this Mad Max saga is more expansive and expensive than what has come before - and thus more vulnerable to criticism and, yes, commercial risk - it's nevertheless been fashioned with the same dazzling underlying skill: the "purposeful savagery" Burke's character notes in Furiosa is exactly the film's best and most succinct review. In any apocalyptic scenario, there will always be those elements that struggle to be fully articulated, or defy rational explanation: for example, why Immortan Joe has saddled his wastrel progeny with the names Scrotus and Rictus Erectus. (Told you Miller was a vulgarian.) But Furiosa still has madness in its blood: as much madness as it has kerosene in its nostrils, it turns out, madness enough to keep dull corporate thinking at bay for a few hours more.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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